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A trip through the top-40 gauntlet

Hello, my name is Chris Conrad and I'm a cultural relic.

It's disconcerting, to say the least. I still feel young, but whatever relevant taste I may have had for new music has been taken to the woods and shot painlessly in the back of the head.

I turn 30 in just a few months. Apparently, this has taken the place of 27 as the rock-n-roll death age.

This revelation hit me earlier this week when, for reasons I can't fully explain, I looked at Billboard's top 50 singles and realized I haven't heard a single one of the songs.

That's probably not true. Chances are that I've inadvertently caught a few seconds of one or two that provide the backbeat for a car commercial.

Feel free to accuse me of music snobbery at any time, though nothing could be further from the truth. I don't put enough stock into rock 'n' roll to place hierarchies on anything I hear.

If it sounds good and at least makes at attempt at creativity it's good enough for me. Too much is made of the backstories behind rock stars. I just don't care where they come from or their thoughts on the war in Iraq.

If I've learned one thing reading rock journalism — to my mind the lowest form of writing — it's that most musicians have little to say that's worth hearing.

I'll make exceptions for the likes of Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard or David Byrne, of course. But they are the exception to the rule.

Regardless, I don't like being left out of the loop, so I took it upon myself to listen to each and every song listed in this week's Billboard top 40.

All of the tunes were readily available in some form on YouTube, usually attached to a crappy music video or a lip-synched karaoke act in some high school-age hipster's bedroom in Omaha.

I'd like to say that I hated every one of the songs because the cultural curve has passed me by. I'm old and broken and what I think cannot matter because my outdated tastes no longer register on a marketing exec's Excel spreadsheet.

But that would be incorrect.

The reason I hated these songs is they are boring and unimaginative.

Let's look at the top five for the week. I recognize Usher in the top spot. Then comes people named Chris Brown, Flo Rida featuring T-Pain, Sara Bareilles — whose ditty is stamped with the genius title "Love Song" — God they aren't even trying anymore — and finally Rihanna.

With the exception of Eureka, Calif.'s own Ms. Bareilles, the top five weaves a tapestry of canned beats and generic R&B lyrics so mundane that I found myself spontaneously dropping off to a drooling sleep like a narcoleptic old man awaiting death.

My only hope is that the ghosts of Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield return to the earth each night to haunt the sleep of Chris Brown, whose song "With You" — No. 2 with a bullet, baby! — contains some of the more inane lyrics you'll hear in quite some time.

A sample: "Oh! I'm into you/ And girl/ No one else would do/ 'cause with every kiss and every hug/ You make me fall in love."

That's not to say Sara Bareilles fares any better. She comes off like a slightly less imaginative Norah Jones, if you can believe that. "Love Song" did make me chuckle a bit when I realized its piano riff is a nothing but a slower version of the Sesame Street theme song.

Easing out of the top five you find things improving, but only slightly. For some reason the kiddies seem to love antiseptic R&B about finding true love in da club.

This theme is found in the music of snoozers Timbaland, Lupe Fiasco, Jordin Sparks and Sean Kingston. I'm sure these are talented, smart people, so why are they trying to scrape the bottom of the dull barrel?

They've actually taken a raucous form created by masters Mayfield, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett and scaled back the sex and danger.

I'm here to tell you, mom and pop Mail Tribune reader, that the kiddies are engaged in an anti-rebellion where confrontation has been replaced by conformity and lust upstaged by a pandering form of love.

The few rock 'n' roll tracks rounding out the top 40 are a sad collection of rap/rock holdouts — Linkin Park and Finger Eleven — and '80s glam wannabes Buckcherry. They almost achieve the utter worthlessness of late-era Aerosmith to which they so desperately aspire. Keep reaching for those stars, fellas.

The sole bright spots belong to Snoop Dogg, you know because he's Snoop Dogg and he's from Long Beach and the name of his song is "Sensual Seduction." Who would have thought the brother could sing? Not me.

Also worth the listen was Wycleaf Jean's "Sweetest Girl (Dollar Bill)." I'll always carry around a soft spot for anyone associated with The Fugees.

My growing indignation toward all things new in music was quickly zapped when I looked up what was hot this week in 1993, the year I turned 16.

The top five: Eric Clapton's travesty "Unplugged"; "The Bodyguard" soundtrack with that infernal Whitney Houston song; oh-dear-god Kenny G's "Breathless"; Naughty by Nature's corporate rap opus "19 Naughty III" and, blessedly, Dr. Dre's true masterpiece "The Chronic."

I've always said that music never sounds as good as when you were young, but this lineup defies age in its banality.

Only Dr. Dre's work has transcended time and space to actually mean something 15 years later, long after he has become the mascot of his former self.

Which leaves the question: Was music ever good? Not as a given whole. The Billboard chart represents the monoculture pushed by three or so record companies. The songs therein are not so much marketed to anyone as they are to everyone.

It's always been this way and always will. Hey, hey, my, my, rock 'n' roll will never die. There's too much cash to be made for that to ever happen.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 776-4471, or e-mail cconrad@mailtribune.com.